MOSCOW — In recent months, various prominent public figures, including at least one close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin, have insisted that Russia officially proclaim Mikhail S. Gorbachev a criminal for abetting the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet when the organizers of Mr. Gorbachev’s 85th birthday extravaganza in March approached the landmark Hotel Ukraine about a banquet, its owners refused payment after they learned that it was the former leader being honored.
“They said that without Gorbachev they would have ended up as small merchants in the market, criminals dealing in contraband,” said Alexei Venediktov, a close friend and the editor in chief of the radio station Echo of Moscow, the main news outlet for liberal Russians. “They said: ‘Now we are the owners of all this thanks to Gorbachev! Not a kopeck!’”
In an interview, Mr. Gorbachev shrugged off the fact that 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he remains among the most reviled men in Russia. “It is freedom of expression,” he said.
Yet the official line denigrating traditional democracy, combined with the very idea that he should face trial, obviously irks him, so he churns out articles, essays and books about the need to enhance freedom in Russia. His latest effort, called “The New Russia” in English, was released in the United States in late May.
There is also great admiration for him among Russians, too, of course. Some adore him for introducing perestroika, or restructuring, combined with glasnost, or openness, which together helped to jettison the worst repressions of the Communist system. Mr. Gorbachev led the way, albeit haltingly, toward free speech, free enterprise and open borders.Continue reading the main story
“Some love him for bringing freedom, and others loathe him for bringing freedom,” said Dmitri Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent newspapers and one in which Mr. Gorbachev holds a 10 percent stake.
The society at large blames him for losing the Soviet empire and leaving them citizens of a second-class country, even if individuals recognize that he opened new horizons for them and their children.
“The society doesn’t like him; he is the anti-Putin,” Mr. Venediktov said. “Putin is the constructor and he is the deconstructor.” He called that perception unfair.
In the interview, Mr. Gorbachev said, “I keep saying that Russia needs more democracy.” The hourlong interview took place at his shrinking foundation, where his office is dominated by an oil painting of his wife, Raisa, who died of leukemia in 1999.
“We hear, even from people close to Putin, statements that emphasize authoritarianism, that emphasize decisiveness and that suggest that democracy can only be achieved far into the future,” Mr. Gorbachev said. “I think if democracy is firmly rooted, if it is based on elections, if people have the chance to elect leaders at regular intervals, I think that is what we need. That is the basis for stability in foreign and domestic policy.”
In his twilight years, Mr. Gorbachev has become an isolated figure. Most of his contemporaries are dead. He is just critical enough about the lack of democracy under Mr. Putin that state-run television channels avoid him. His death has been announced more than once.
Mr. Gorbachev does not fault Mr. Putin directly for the lack of democracy in Russia, although he was more critical of the president when his book was released in Russia last year. “He began suffering from the same disease from which I used to suffer: self-assuredness,” Mr. Gorbachev said at the time. “He considers himself deputy-God, I don’t know for what matters, though.”
He and others listed several reasons for muting his criticism. First, Mr. Gorbachev enjoys no immunity from prosecution, and hence like many government critics, feels increasingly uneasy as the Kremlin chips away at civil liberties. He said he feared being declared a “foreign agent,” a revived Stalinist label that basically means “spy,” and that is now being used to shutter dozens of civil society organizations.
“There are quite a few reactionary-minded people in this country who are already declaring me a foreign agent — they think that I am working for someone,” he said. It is quite a statement from a man, who if he had changed nothing, might still be the supreme leader of the Soviet Union, as previous leaders tended to rule for life.
Second, he casts most of the political and economic ills plaguing Russia as the legacy of his hated archrival, former President Boris N. Yeltsin, giving Mr. Putin a pass as a necessary correction.
Third, he agrees with Mr. Putin on many issues, particularly foreign policy. He supported Moscow grabbing back Crimea, for example, calling the public referendum legitimate — despite its being held at gunpoint. That stance just got him barred from Ukraine for five years.
As the man most responsible for ending the Cold War, Mr. Gorbachev feels betrayed that the West — and the United States, in particular — played the victor and treated Russia like a dismissed serf, bringing NATO forces and the European Union to its very borders.
“There was a mood of triumphalism at the end of the Cold War that was shared by many Americans,” he said. “That was the point of departure for the collapse of everything.”
He parts company with Mr. Putin on domestic issues, however, even if he keeps Mr. Yeltsin in the foreground.
Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin were longtime rivals who delighted in humiliating each other. Mr. Gorbachev gives grudging respect to Mr. Yeltsin for intervening to stop the right-wing coup that sought to overthrow his presidency in 1991, but low marks for the rest of his chaotic tenure, which gave democracy a bad name in Russia.
“I still don’t understand why Yeltsin is regarded as a hero in the United States, when he was an authoritarian,” Mr. Gorbachev said in his most emotional display, slapping his hand on his desk.
Mr. Gorbachev travels little now, dividing his time between his office and a dacha outside Moscow. He calls the death of Raisa his “greatest loss.” He is heavier, and his famous birthmark is less prominent. Despite occasional hospital visits, he still downs vodka with friends.
Mr. Muratov said they often recounted the same joke, based on Mr. Gorbachev’s infamous campaign to lower alcohol consumption:
Two men are standing in a long, long vodka line prompted by the limited supply. One asks the other to keep his place in line, because he wants to go over the Kremlin to punch Gorbachev in the face for his anti-alcohol policy. He comes back many hours later and his friend asks him if he had indeed punched Gorbachev. “No,” the man answered despondently. “The line at the Kremlin was even longer.”
Various people among the 300 guests at his March birthday party offered toasts to Mr. Gorbachev. The ambassadors of the United States, Germany, France and Israel, all commended him separately for making the world a more peaceful, stable place.
One editor from Echo of Moscow radio, Sergei Buntman, gave an ironic toast, saying that Mr. Gorbachev had wrecked everyone’s quiet existence.
Mr. Venediktov would be an esteemed schoolteacher instead of the controversial head of a popular radio station, Mr. Buntman said, while Mr. Putin would be a respected KGB lieutenant colonel rather than a target of critics worldwide. “You ruined our lives,” the editor joked.